Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

"Self-hatred and lies, stuck on the merry-go-round of never-ending temptations... give Flight its tension."

No one claims that there was a bird strike in Robert Zemeckis's harrowing Flight, starring Denzel Washington as the unsteady pilot Captain Whip Whitacker. Just about every other explanation that causes unpleasant emotions on a plane is at least touched upon. On October 14, (coincidentally, the same date of the movie's world premiere at the 50th New York Film Festival Closing Night Gala), SouthJet 227 departs Orlando, Florida, with Whip at the helm.

There is a severe storm and an out-dated plane that should have had vital parts replaced a long time ago. And then there is Whip, charming, funny, with a trustworthy voice, a genial smile, totally high on coke after an all-nighter and with a blood alcohol level of .24 per cent. At a level of .08 per cent, you go to jail in the US, for piloting a car, let alone a plane with 102 souls on board. Whip, despite, or possibly even because of, his intoxicated state, manages in a breath-taking stunt, to perform a miracle landing. The large majority of passengers survives.

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A more conventional Hollywood product would show the hero pilot now, awaken by the catastrophe and harm he caused, change his ways, repent, maybe even find a suitable religion and never touch the evil substances again.

Random terrible events do not change people. Addictions are not gloriously overcome by attending one welcomingly-lit AA meeting during which a funny guy tells a heartwarming vomiting story with just the right touch of cynicism.

Flight goes into that territory, especially with some of the mood music choices, but it does not surrender to the moments of false promise. That's what makes Whip's trip interesting, even a bit dangerous, because the salvation-side is so unappealing. The co-pilot's religion, especially when echoed by his wife, "blessed to be alive" Vicky, who wants them all to pray together, right after her husband confronted Whip with the truth: "I will never fly again… The plane was doomed… When you entered the plane that morning, you reeked of gin."

Billy Wilder's Lost Weekend (1945) comes to mind, because Denzel Washington has something of Ray Milland's calculated dignity within the bounds of outright despair. Washington is surrounded by an impressive cast. Several of the men get a little runway scene, walking down hotel corridors, mirroring Washington's cool pilot swagger. Think male Charlie's Angels, with their respective uniforms instead of the hair.

Don Cheadle, who plays Hugh Lang, defense attorney based in Chicago, hired to save the airline by whitewashing the pilot's irresponsible behaviour and to add "Act of God" to the list of causes for the crash, has his walk of confidence in loopholes. John Goodman, as Whip's drug dealer and friend, Harling Mays, gets his corridor catwalk at the hospital, before he shoos the nurse out of the room. "That's what we have in common, we both hate me," he says to her and introduces a central theme.

Self-hatred and lies, stuck on the merry-go-round of never-ending temptations: An open door here, a mini bar there, a little defeat, and some unbearable progress, the beckoning liquor store and the exceptionally large gin bottle that has to be opened right away, in the car, give Flight its tension. The women, are lovely to look at, but stay buttresses for the men, a bit like Wilson, the volleyball, for the ship-wrecked Tom Hanks in Zemeckis's Cast Away (2000), the director's last live-action film.

Kelly Reilly's recovering drug addict and porn actress, Nicole Maggen, who nursed her mother to death (which equals a good heart), represents possibility. Melissa Leo's Ellen Block is justice and the ex-wife gets to be ex-wife. Then there are the flight attendants, but "crew members don't count," Cheadle's character says during a chilling exchange.

Charlie Anderson, pilots' union representative and old navy pal to Whip, is played by Bruce Greenwood with much sympathy and reflection as the straight guy in all this chaos. In a scene in his house, he all but shoves his wife out of the room, to talk to his troubled friend.

The nostalgia of grandpa's crop duster farm with the Cessna in the barn, finds its match in the scenes with the son. Flight is clearly not a film about family, even though it pretends to be at times.

"Is he a drunk?" "He is a heavy drinker," go the discussions about Whip. As in Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, we get to see a lot of unsettling mixing of alcoholic beverages.

Next time you see a pilot having orange juice, think of Denzel Washington's portrayal of Whip, and board the plane.

Reviewed on: 15 Oct 2012
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An airline pilot who lives on the wild side becomes a national hero... until his blood tests come back.
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Director: Robert Zemeckis

Writer: John Gatins

Starring: Denzel Washington, John Goodman, Don Cheadle, Kelly Reilly, Charlie Anderson, Bruce Greenwood, Melissa Leo

Year: 2012

Runtime: 139 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


New York 2012

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